The preparations for Pesach begin in earnest at Purim. Any Jewish homemaker will tell you of the frenzy that begins to build from then, the cleaning out of cupboards, then whole rooms; the growth of boundaries within the house, the diminishing places to eat. The culmination of the whole activity is seder, then the week falls into a rhythm of its own, the hard work done for a little while. The festival at the end of the week has a different flavour, somehow more relaxed and reflective – before the work of packing away the Pesach artefacts and recreating ordinary life.
The exodus from Egypt may be acted out in the animated engaging ceremonies at the beginning of the week, but personal redemption for many of us is experienced more in the unassuming days that follow, and particularly in the service of the seventh day when the Song at the Sea is read from sidra Beshallach.
There are apparently two songs in this sidra – the one known as song of Moses, and then a fragment or apparent echo of it which is known as the song of Miriam. But modern scholarship suggests that the texts we have may not be given the correct ascription, that the songs of Miriam and Moses were one choral piece, different perspectives on the same event sung both antiphonally and together. Writings found in Qumran uncover another seven lines of Miriam’s song, and when these are put together with the unusual pattern of the words in the scroll, we find that a commentary on the main text emerges. Miriam addresses her words to the whole community, focussing on the contemporary experience of the miracle, and bringing them into dialogue; Moses’ words are about his own understanding, his own leadership and strength.
The beginning of Pesach sometimes feels to be all about Moses, the upfront miraculous power of leaving Egypt in the chaos and turmoil of the exodus. But the ending of Pesach is about Miriam’s way of being – the quieter underpinning of experiencing change, of weaving it into normality, the import of the story and not the headline.
Miriam involves the whole community, singing to them of their history. While each of us must feel that we too came out from Egypt, how much more important is it to us that we did not come out alone, but as part of a people, and that our history is not just great events or great individuals, but a fabric made up of the lives of us all. Redemption is to be found in the quieter, deeper spaces of our tradition.